Big business loves marriage equality

A tweet from Gap Inc after the Supreme Court overturned DOMA

A tweet from Gap Inc after the Supreme Court overturned DOMA

At Target’s annual shareholder meeting in 2011, Gregg Steinhafel, the company’s chief executive, was asked whether Target would take a stand on a constitutional amendment being proposed in Minnesota to ban gay marriage.

His reply:

“Our position at this particular time is that we are going to be neutral on that particular issue, as we would be on other social issues that have polarizing points of view.”

You can almost feel him squirming, can’t you?

Steinhafel ducked the issue of gay-marriage even thought Target has a reputation as a gay-friendly employer. The company gets a top score of 100 percent and the distinction of “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality” in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. This was a time when most companies ran away from the gay-marriage debate, figuring that no matter what they said, they’d annoy someone.

That has changed, dramatically, in just a couple of years, as I wrote a story posted yesterday at Guardian Sustainable Business:

Last year, when the supreme court pondered the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits, a friend-of-the-court brief urging the repeal of Doma was signed by nearly 300 employers, including such big brands as Apple, CBS, Citigroup, eBay, Facebook, Google, Marriott, Mars, Nike, Starbucks and Walt Disney. Goldman Sachs flew an equality flag outside its downtown New York headquarters when the court overturned DOMA.

Now, as the battleground shifts backs to the states, businesses have allied themselves with supporters of gay marriage in Oregon and Indiana. In Oregon, a liberal-leaning state, you might expect a youth-oriented company like Nike to back marriage equality, and it has – with a $280,000 donation to the cause. The Portland Trail Blazers, meantime, became the first NBA team to back gay marriage.

More surprising is the role of two big companies in Indiana, a Republican stronghold. Cummins, the world’s largest manufacturer of diesel engines, and Eli Lilly, the big US maker of insulin products, each gave $100,000 to Freedom Indiana, a coalition of businesses, community groups and faith leaders trying to keep a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage off the ballot this fall.

What’s more, as I go on to write, the executives at Cummins and Eli Lilly were very direct in their support of marriage equality. They said it was good for business and good for Indiana, and that the state does not need a divisive and emotional debate over gay marriage. You can read the rest of the story here.

I’ve followed the debate over LGBT equality in the corporate world since 2006 when I wrote a long story for Fortune headlined Queer Inc. In light of the fact that we are either stuck or moving backwards on some other important issues — climate change and economic mobility, to name just two — it’s heartening to see the progress being made by people who are working for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* equal rights.

By the way, Minnesotans eventually enacted legislation supporting marriage equality. It was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, the great-grandson of George Dayton, the founder of Dayton’s – the department store that later became Target.

Garment industry deaths in Bangladesh: The end of the beginning?

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAGarment workers in Bangladesh have  labored in unsafe conditions for years. They will likely suffer for years to come.

But in the aftermath of the Tazreen factory fire last November, which killed at least 117 people, and the Rana Plaza building collapse in April, which killed more than 1,100, European and US retailers–operating on separate but parallel paths–have come together to act. Actually, to be more specific, they have come together to promise to act.

There’s lot of controversy about the US effort, called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, because it does not include the meaningful participation of organized labor, at least not yet. But, as I write today in Guardian Sustainable Business, it’s a step forward.

Here’s how my story begins:

At long last, US apparel retailers have joined together to improve safety for garment workers in Bangladesh – most of them poor women, toiling in hazardous workplaces at the bottom of the bottom of the global supply chain.

Gap, Walmart, Target, Macy’s, VF Corporation and a dozen other companies that formed the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety say they will set common safety standards, inspect all their factories in Bangladesh, make the results public, provide loans for repairs and give workers more power to protect themselves.

Is that sufficient? Labour rights groups say no. As the US companies unveiled their alliance in Washington, student protesters gathered outside, chanting “Shame on Walmart” and decrying the plan as a “fake safety scheme.”

It’s not. It’s a serious plan, with some money behind it, that includes a commitment to transparency, and mechanisms to enable workers to speak out about unsafe conditions. It’s not perfect – the alliance’s glaring flaw is a lack of participation from unions – but the US companies hope to bring in Bangladeshi and international labour groups.

The story goes on to describe the key role played by Gap and its executives in bringing the US retailers together. Gap has been deeply engaged in Bangladesh since December 2010–before Tazreen and Rana Plaza–when a fire at one of its suppliers’ factories killed 29 workers. [click to continue...]

Marcus Chung: A report from Bangladesh

ChungSadly, today’s guest post from my friend Marcus Chung is timely. The New York Times reported this morning on another factory fire in Bangladesh, this one killing seven women. Is this the price we must pay for cheap clothes? Marcus thinks not–although he’s just 36, he has worked for about a decade on corporate responsibility issues in the apparel industry, doing stints at Gap and Talbot’s. I’ve gotten to know Marcus as a fellow board member at Net Impact, a nonprofit organization of students and young professionals who want to use their business skills to make the world more just and sustainable. That’s exactly what Marcus, a Wesleyan grad with a Berkeley MBA, is doing in his current job, consulting for a global retailer of children’s clothing. Here’s his report from Bangladesh.

From the moment you arrive at the Dhaka airport, it’s clear that the apparel industry is vital to Bangladesh’s economy. Airport walls are lined with posters advertising local garment manufacturers, textile mills, and trims suppliers. Apparel accounts for between 70 and 80 percent of exports, so it’s no surprise that almost everyone on my flight from Hong Kong to Dhaka declared their profession as “buyer” or “sourcing” when clearing through immigration.

I visited Dhaka on behalf of a client to get a better understanding of the CSR challenges, trends, and opportunities that large apparel brands face in sourcing from Bangladeshi garment factories. Following November 2012’s tragic Tazreen Fashions factory fire that claimed the lives of more than 100 workers, there is renewed focus on how the industry can promote better factory working conditions. Tazreen was just the latest in a string of Bangladeshi garment factories that burned to the ground, but it also was the country’s most devastating in terms of lives lost.

Western mass-market apparel retailers source from Bangladesh because they can get a solid product at a competitive price. The apparel industry cannot ignore a fundamental commercial reality: Bangladesh has a ready supply of very capable garment factories that are filled with inexpensive labor. It’s not realistic (or probably advisable–MG)for companies to simply stop sourcing from the country. Therefore, the industry must do a better job of sourcing in a responsible manner that protects the rights of workers and includes basic commitments to a safe and healthy work environment.

A Multitude of Challenges

Over the years, I’ve heard many hypotheses about why fire safety continues to challenge so many Bangladeshi factory managers. Some cite an ineffective, corrupt government that does not enforce its own building code regulations. Others believe factory middle managers, myopically focused on production output, lack the ability or understanding to support fire safety practices with workers. Many believe pressure from Western brands to achieve low-cost goods encourages subversion of basic health and safety standards. I’ve heard people claim the root cause is a basic lack of infrastructure: old, multi-story buildings with poor electrical wiring; unreliable power supply (I cannot count the number of times the power went out during my visit) that causes short-circuits; and dusty, flammable materials lying dangerously close to unprotected electrical outlets. I spoke with one CSR leader who lamented a general lack of civil society and a culture where officials will agree to make improvements, but never follow through. [click to continue...]

Who’s responsible for factory conditions in poor countries? Has CSR gone too far?

garment-factoryJust who is responsible for the fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than 100 workers in November?

The factory owner? The government of Bangladesh? US and European brands and retailers who bought the clothes made there? Shoppers who demand the latest styles at low prices?

And who deserves credit for the improvements in working conditions at Foxconn, China’s largest employer and Apple’s biggest supplier?

Apple? The Chinese labor market? Journalists at The New York Times?

Similar questions could be asked about paint factories that discharge pollution into rivers, toy factories that use dangerous chemicals or factories everywhere that run inefficient equipment or burn dirty fuels.

For nearly two decades, a core belief of the social-responsibility movement  has been that western brands and retailers must take responsibility for the social and environmental performance of the factories in their supply chain. This has created an immense infrastructure–an industry, really, of consultants who write codes of conduct for those factories, inspect the factories, report on them and deploy a combination of carrots and sticks that, at least in theory, bring about improved performance.

In essence, US and European brands have become quasi-governmental, undemocratic standards setters and enforcers of social and environmental norms.

So how’s it working? The year just past put a spotlight on a glaring failure of that system–the fire in Bangladesh, where factory conditions in the garment industry are widely deemed to remain unsafe–and on what has been cited as one of its successes–the new transparency of Apple’s supply chain, and the improved conditions at Foxconn, which supplies HP, Sony, Dell and other electronics companies, as well as Apple. [click to continue...]

Social funds: BP, the 1960s, and greed

Recently, after posting a column about BP and socially responsible mutual funds (See Social Funds and BP: How embarrassing!)  I heard from Adam Kanzer, who is managing director and general counsel at Domini Social Investments. While Domini has never owned shares of BP, Adam and I began a conversation about the role  of socially-responsible mutual funds. Adam, who has been in the fund business for twelve years, is a smart and committed executive, but we don’t always agree, so we decided to engage in a dialog about social funds.

Adam Kanzer

Adam Kanzer

Marc: Adam, let’s start with BP. Why did Domini exclude the company? Do you hold any other oil or coal companies?

Adam: Domini has consistently excluded BP from our portfolios because of our concerns about their safety record. Our initial review followed the Texas City explosion in 2005, but our decision was quickly reinforced by the Prudhoe Bay spill the following year.  We met with BP to discuss these and related issues with them. And each time we revisited BP, we found more violations.

We’re looking to identify the key sustainability challenges each company faces. For the oil and gas industries, worker safety and environmental compliance are among a handful of core issues we consider.  I should also note that we have consistently excluded Transocean and Halliburton, both of whom played a role in the Deepwater Horizon project. In addition we have also consistently excluded Massey Energy, the other current poster-child for disaster, as well as Toyota for substantial safety, employee relations and human rights concerns.  We discuss these decisions on our website. And yes, we do hold other oil and gas companies, although we set a high bar for entry. We do not invest in companies whose core business is coal mining.

Marc: Any thoughts on why BP was so widely held by other socially-responsible funds?

Adam: As CEO of BP, Lord Browne made very important statements about the reality of climate change at a time when others in his industry were denying its existence. That was important. In addition, BP has been committed to transparency on its social and environmental performance. I can’t speak for other firms, but I can see how those factors may have led some to hold BP. We felt that the safety and environmental issues outweighed these positives.

If a fund’s benchmark is heavily weighted towards oil, then an SRI manager will need to consider that. This tyranny of the benchmark certainly led many to hold BP and other oil companies that in a perfect world they would have preferred to avoid.

Which brings me to the important question that I have not heard – why did all of the so-called ‘mainstream’ investors buy BP? Why did investors allow this company to become one of the largest in the world by market capitalization? At least social investors weighed these issues and came to a decision. The rest of the market acted as if there was no problem.

Marc: That’s an excellent point, and it makes me wonder why people pay mutual fund managers such high fees. They missed the housing and Wall Street bubbles, and didn’t see or care about the safety issues at BP. Clearly most  funds aren’t very good at managing risk.

Turning to another topic, many SRI funds have their roots in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s as well as in faith-based investing. So funds like Domini exclude companies that make weapons, alcohol, tobacco and nuclear power. My question is, why? Let’s start with weapons. Don’t we need companies that make weapons in the post 9/11 era?

Adam:   First, it is important to understand that we divide those industries into two general categories – companies that provide addictive products and services, and companies whose products contribute to geopolitical instability. We place military weapons manufacturers and nuclear power in the latter category. We do not consider investments in addiction and global instability to be productive uses of capital.

National defense is too important to be placed in the hands of the same system that brought us the financial crisis. When Eisenhower issued his warnings about the growth of the military-industrial complex, he wasn’t questioning our need for a strong national defense. Yes, we need weapons, but do we need publicly traded companies manufacturing weapons? Are the capital markets an appropriate mechanism for providing these goods, or have the markets distorted our national priorities? That’s a critical debate our nation needs to have.

There are also categories of weapons that violate international humanitarian law because they cannot distinguish between military and civilian targets. These include landmines, clusterbombs and nuclear weapons. These ‘products’ make the world more dangerous, and landmines have caused incalculable misery to innocent civilians – including children – around the world. As investors, we have a responsibility to choose wisely. Our Funds’ shareholders choose not to profit from these violations, so we exclude these manufacturers and companies that manufacture nuclear weapons delivery systems.

Marc: What about nuclear power? Some environmentalists, notably Stewart Brand, say we need to seriously consider nukes in light of the climate crisis? [click to continue...]

Shop with your (gay-friendly) values

67838081_e8084e86acWith the (yuk) holiday shopping season upon us, this weekend seems like a good time to devote a series of blogposts to the idea of shopping with your values. But before I get to today’s topic–the Buying for Equality guide published by the Human Rights Campaign–let me first humbly suggest that one way to express your values this season, if you care about leaving a more sustainable planet to our children, is not to shop at all, or to shop less.

Over-consumption is a problem. If all of the 6.8 billion people on the planet lived like Americans we’d be in trouble. Today, Black Friday, the busiest day of the year is also known as Buy Nothing Day. This year the organizers are saying:

We want you to not only stop buying for 24 hours, but to shut off your lights, televisions and other nonessential appliances. We want you to park your car, turn off your phones and log off of your computer for the day.

This is a nonstarter for me. I’m not parking my car, turning off my phone or shutting down my laptop (obviously). No way, no how. Indeed, I worry that a call to action like that turns off more people than it inspires. I much prefer the holiday messaging from the Center for a New American Dream, which exhorts people to simplify the holidays, by planning a holiday with more fun and less stuff. But most of us still want at least some stuff. Today, and over the next couple of days, I’ll try to suggest some ways we can acquire stuff that aligns with our values. [click to continue...]

Why traceability matters

What are you wearing? Where did it came from? How much energy went into it? How much pollution was generated by its production and shipping?

You almost surely don’t know, and you may not care, but brands and retailers are digging deep into their supply chains to better understand the environmental and social impact of the things they make and sell. This is an emerging trend in business that goes by the name of  traceability or supply chain transparency. It requires companies to understand the full depths of their supply chains much better than most do. Companies getting serious about traceability include Patagonia, Wal-Mart, Tesco and Gap. More are sure to follow.

“If you don’t know where your stuff is coming from. how can you have a sustainability program?” asks Tim Wilson, the CEO of a British company called Historic Futures that specializes in traceability.

Tim talked about traceability on a panel that I moderated at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference about business and the environment. He was joined by Mike Kowalski, the CEO of Tiffany & Co., Kathy Abusow of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Jill Dumain of Patagonia, Arlin Wasserman of Sodexo and Jeremy Moon, the CEO of Icebreaker. Icebreaker is a fascinating company that makes clothing from New Zealand merino wool and invites customers to trace their garments back to the farmers who raised the sheep that made it—using a (Get it?)  Baacode. Very cool, and here’s the Icebreaker story.

From the composition of that panel, you can see that traceability crosses diverse industries—jewelry, wood and paper, food and clothing. In every case, the goal is to de-commoditize commodities—that is, to distinguish between gold mined under safe conditions in the U.S. and gold mined by children in Africa, or between wood that is harvested sustainably and wood that has been illegally logged. Fortune.com just published a brief story that I did about traceability. Here’s how it begins:

Laguna Niguel, Calif. –  Where was the cotton in your shirt grown? Who mined the gold in your wedding ring? What forest produced the paper in the magazine you are reading?

You almost surely don’t know, but a growing number of brands and retailers want to dig deep into their supply chains to better understand the roots (sometimes literally) of the products they sell. Their goal: to avoid risks and enhance their reputation as “green” business leaders, says Tim Wilson, the 41-year-old CEO of Historic Futures, a little British company that is riding a big idea in sustainability, known as traceability.

Using Internet-based systems and RFID tags, Historic Futures tracks such commodities as cotton and gold through the long and previously opaque supply chains of Wal-Mart, Gap, and Patagonia, among others.

Patagonia has done a terrific job of explaining traceability to the public on a website called The Footprint Chronicles. (That’s a graphic from the site below.) The Environmental Defense Fund spotlighted the work done by Patagonia in its 2009 Innovations Review, which I helped EDF to write. EDF also highlighted Wal-Mart’s Love, Earth line of jewelry—which promises customers that the gold and silver jewelry they buy has been mine and produced responsibly.

Here is a link to the EDF report about traceability, headlined Shining a Spotlight on the Supply Chain. Here’s a link to EDF’s account explaining how Wal-Mart created its Love, Earth line of jewelry, with the help of Historic Futures. Another example of traceability: Wal-Mart and Tesco have vowed not to buy clothing made with cotton farmed in Uzbekhistan, where child labor is rampant, requiring them to ask all their suppliers to know where their cotton is sourced.

Traceability isn’t a new idea, of course. We couldn’t have organic food or Fair Trade coffee or salmon certified by the Marine Stewardship Council without transparent supply chains that track goods from the store shelf back to the farm or fishery. But judging from the crowd at our Brainstorm Green panel on traceability, you’ll be hearing more about it in the years ahead.
top2_footprint_s9

Helping companies fight sweatshops

On a 15-hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong (in coach), it helps to have some distractions. The movie Get Smart? Nah. Instead, I spent time talking with Dan Viederman, the leader of an NGO called Verite, who I’ve gotten to know in recent years because he works with U.S. companies that want to improve conditions in factories in poor countries where their products are made.

Dan, who is 45, happens to be an old China hand. He first traveled to China in 1985, after college, to spend a couple of years teaching English. “I was one of 50 foreigners in a city of 9 million people and 30 of them were Korean,” he tells me. He also lived in China during the 1990s, first as a development worker with Catholic Relief Services and then as the director of World Wildlife Fund’s offices in Beijing. He’s been back many times since.

We ran into each other by chance, but we were both headed for the Pearl River Delta area of southern China, the world’s biggest manufacturing hub, where many millions of mostly young workers make the clothes, shoes, furniture and electronics we use every day. (I’m typing this blogpost on a MacBook Air; odds are some or all of it was made here. Same with the Gap jeans and shirt I’m wearing.) These huge facilities—with dormitories for the production workers, apartments or homes for middle managers, cafeterias and restaurants, stores and athletic facilities—are more like company towns than mere workplaces.

Consider: Shenzhen, which is just north of Hong Kong, was a fishing town of about 30,000 people when “paramount leader Deng Xiao-ping” (as he’s called in this morning’s South China Morning Post) designated the area as a “Special Economic Zone” to promote foreign trade in 1980. Today, Shenzhen is bigger than New York or Paris, with about 14 million people, and it’s one of China’s wealthiest cities.

This has been a boon to U.S. companies and consumers. But it has also led to scandals around sweatshop labor that embarrassed Nike and Kathie Lee Gifford and Disney and Wal-Mart, most in the 1990s, some more recent. Since then, U.S. companies have been looking for ways to stay out of that particular spotlight. Many have written labor standards and codes of conduct that they impose on their suppliers, after which they hire inspectors to monitor factory conditions. These U.S. and European brands function, informally and imperfectly, as the Department of Labor in China, which has pretty good labor laws on the books but enforces them erratically at best.

As executive director of Verite since 2004, Dan has tried to improve that system. He has worked with a host of companies – Timberland, Disney, Gap, Apple, a coalition of firms called the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition and others—around labor practices in the developing world. Verite does auditing, training, worker empowerment programs, research and investigations. Verite also has contracts with the U.S. government (labor and state) to look at issues like migrant labor and slave labor, and it’s part of a chocolate industry effort to do something about child labor in the cocoa industry in West Africa. The NGO is headquartered in Amherst, MA, with offices in China and Manila.

No one who knows anything about this system of factory monitoring, inspection and compliance will tell you that it is ideal but in China, at least, it’s about all we’ve got. Dan’s job is to make it better, and he says the obstacles are many—suppliers keep two sets of books to fool auditors, they monkey around with workers’ pay stubs by deducting funds for housing or uniforms, they track hours poorly or don’t pay overtime, etc. “There’s built-in underpayment of wages,” Dan says. Besides that, some auditors who work for U.S. brands may not be fully committed to the task—they are paid, after all, by the companies, and they may not know or care how to do inspections right. Think of how Arthur Anderson “audited” Enron.

As a nonprofit, Verite’s loyalty is to the workers, and its credibility is key. That’s one reason why Dan is refreshingly honest about the flaws of the system. “We don’t really believe you can certify a factory as complaint,” he says, because conditions change all the time as new orders come in. A more sustainable approach would be to educate workers to look out for their own rights—Timberland hired Verite to try that at some factories a few years ago, and Reebok has taken similar steps. But the Chinese government permits only one trade union, and Dan tells me that the government-controlled All China Federation of Trade Unions has never, as far as he can recall, organized a strike or fought hard for its members.

Despite all the problems, there’s little doubt that the massive industrialization of China has been good for its people. Hundreds of millions have lifted themselves out of poverty through factory work—more than in any other place at any other time. This is the upside of globalization.

“By almost any measure, except maybe environmental quality, China’s a better country for most people than it was in 1985,” Dan says. “I think that has a lot to do with its openness to the world and its role in the global economy.”

What’s more, before we smugly assume a position of moral superiority when it comes to cheap labor in China, we should remembering that it wasn’t all that long ago that rapid industrialization and unfettered capitalism created terrible factory conditions in American cities. (The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire caused the death of 146 garment workers in 1911.) It took a robust union movement, aided by progressive politicians, to protect American workers from exploitation.

Something similar will have to happen in China before we can feel entirely comfortable when we pay “bargain” prices for laptops or jeans. Interestingly, the Chinese government has been more willing to allow dissent and permit the growth of vibrant NGOs in the environmental arena—where the problems are dire—than it has been to promote independent labor unions.

“In the long run, things will change because the society demands change,” Dan says. “This can’t be the responsibility of business alone.”